The Play’s the Thing

I jump into the games vs. movies argument again, but this time Hitchock’s got my back.

Yesterday a discussion about narrative vs. gameplay in videogames broke out on Twitter, and Telltaler Mike Watson consolidated much of it onto a webpage. (Although I’d recommend including the first level of comments that are @replied to, even if the speaker isn’t in the list of “game design notables”).

There are two good things about conducting a discussion like that on Twitter:

  1. It encourages everyone to compress his opinion into a short and simple sound bite, without paragraphs of prevarication meant to sound good but in the end, not really saying anything.
  2. The 140-character limit discourages the use of terms like “ludonarrative dissonance.” (A completely sound and relevant concept which has unfortunately been given the most pretentious-sounding name possible).

What’s bad about conducting a discussion like that on Twitter: everything else. While the lack of supporting arguments keeps everything focused, it also reduces everything to a statement of opinion with nothing indicating why anyone should agree with that opinion. No offense intended to the participants, since that’s the nature of Twitter. But it lets anyone come along and take a simplified opinion out of context and start poking holes in it. Let me demonstrate by doing exactly that:

If you put the narrative in front of the gameplay, you are no longer making a game. You’re making a movie.

That’s from Civ 4 designer Soren Johnson, in response to yet another encapsulation of somebody’s opinion, this one from Denis Dyack. There seems to be a lot of over-simplification and over-reaction on both sides; all of Dyack’s quotes don’t suggest turning videogames into movies, but the synthesis of different art forms that go into making a game. The closest he comes to saying “put narrative in front of gameplay” in the supplied quotes (which, again, are cherry-picked from a longer presentation) is “narrative is going to become more and more dominant, possibly superseding gameplay” (italics mine), and he ends that with “narrative is not the be all and end all.” He’s not advocating narrative at the expense of gameplay; he’s advocating a balance.

Which, at this stage of maturity in the videogame industry, means better narratives in games. And I’m all for that. If you insist that “gameplay” is the only important thing, you can end up with a game that has a terrific cover mechanic, clever and well-balanced weapons, great level design, a good multiplayer mode, and a story that makes me feel stupider every time one of the characters opens his mouth. I still don’t understand why, whenever anyone suggests that a game like Gears of War would be improved by having a better story, it’s met with scorn and long arguments about authorial control. And, of course, the often-repeated claim, “if you want to tell stories, you should make movies.”

I’ve seen and heard that claim made over and over again throughout the last fourteen years, coming from everyone from people writing on message boards, to executives at game companies. And I’ve got four big problems with it:

  1. It’s polarizing. Which makes it perfect for the internet, where everything has to be turned into an either/or proposition. “If you advocate better storytelling in games, you’re saying that gameplay isn’t important. Go back to Hollywood and stop ruining my videogames!” You can try responding, “Hey, relax; I said it had a lot of great mechanics, but I couldn’t enjoy them because of all the dumb-ass homosexual innuendo and having to listen to the fucking ‘Cole Train’,” but you’ll get drowned out, because “games should have a good balance” isn’t controversial enough to make for good internet arguments.
  2. It’s too narrow a definition of what a game is. Basically, it’s whatever type of game the speaker likes. But instead of saying, “I don’t like that type of game,” it’s “That isn’t even a game at all so go back to Hollywood and stop ruining my videogames!
  3. It assumes too much competence on the part of videogame designers. Just because something hasn’t been done well yet doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. It’s true that a game with a great story but lousy gameplay is going to be a lousy game. But it’s every bit as true that no matter how great or novel your gameplay mechanics may be, if you try to incorporate a narrative and don’t appreciate how the narrative and gameplay mechanics work together, you’ll end up with a lousy game. The answer to that isn’t to just throw up your hands and say it can’t be done. The answer is to get better at creating a synthesis of the two.
  4. It confuses the potential of a medium with the definition of the medium. Or in other words, it takes a list of what games can do and says that this is the list of things that all games must do.

And for that last one, I’m going to go back to Hollywood and look at Alfred Hitchock’s movie Rope.

It Begins With a Shriek… It Ends With a Shot!

You’ll often see Rope described as “a failed experiment,” even by Hitchcock himself. It’s an adaptation of a stage play; the “experimental” part of it was Hitchcock’s decision to film it as if it were in real-time, a continuous shot playing out over 80 minutes. It’s a series of very long (around 10 minute) takes, with most of the cuts disguised. It tells the story of a pair of students who murder a classmate (in the opening scene) and then throw a dinner party inviting a former teacher and many of the victim’s family and friends, just to see if they can get away with it (they don’t, in the closing scene).

You could make the claim, as Roger Ebert does in this 1984 review, that the movie fails because it’s based on a “gimmick” and it doesn’t use “the usual grammar of camera movement and editing.” Or to translate that into the narrative-in-videogames language, “Hitchcock was no longer making a movie. He was making a stage play.”

I completely disagree with Ebert (and, I suppose, Hitchcock to some degree), because I think the experiment works. It’s unsettling and suspenseful, and it has the sense of cold detachment that’s perfect for a story of a dinner party thrown by Nietzsche-inspired murderers. But most importantly, it’s an adaptation that is completely true to its medium: it could only work as a movie, and it only works as well as it does because it’s a movie.

Although Rope was performed as if it were a stage play, the effect on those of us in the audience is nothing like watching a stage play. Instead, we’re an invisible guest at the party. The camera is far from static; it slowly pans through the room, focusing on certain conversations as if we’re overhearing them, or pieces of set detail as if we’re just noticing them. In a theater, we’d remain detached from the stage, handling the editing work ourselves as we decide what we want to focus on; in the movie, we’re on the stage, and we’re forced to look at what the cinematographer wants us to see. The effect is claustrophobic. We know a murder has been committed, and we’re trapped in the party with the murderers, just waiting for them to be found out.

Ebert says that most of the problems he had with Rope were because it wasn’t filmed like “an ordinary movie.” He says the long takes aren’t necessary, since audiences accept cuts without even thinking about it. He says that alternating between close-ups and medium shots to develop a rhythm of intensity and objectivity. He says that the insistence on continuous takes means that the camera is sometimes focusing on the wrong thing at the wrong time. I say that that misses the point to an astonishing degree, especially astonishing coming from anyone who’d seen The Birds and Psycho.

Hitchcock’s real genius is that he had an innate understanding not only of how movies are made, but of how they’re perceived. He knew all the rules of how to make a horror movie: you use tension-filled music to punctuate terrifying scenes, and you never kill off your lead actress within the first half of a movie. And he knew how and when to break those rules to manipulate the audience’s expectations. The lack of music is a huge part of what makes The Birds so unsettling; we may not notice that the music is missing, but we’re so used to hearing it in movies that we’re put on edge for reasons we can’t quite explain until after the fact. And the lack of edits and “ordinary movie” storytelling is what makes Rope so tense and claustrophobic. Filming it as “an ordinary movie” would’ve put all of the focus on the characters and the plot. And the characters and the plot are macabre but frankly, pretty boring and straightforward.

Playing by the rules

Rope doesn’t take advantage of all the potential of cinema, but it takes the main potential — the ability to move the camera and focus the audience’s attention — and uses the hell out of it. And it builds tension by taking the things audiences expect from cinema — the moments when Ebert wants to be looking over there, or see a close-up of that character — and then denying them. The key is that Hitchcock knew what film can and can’t do well, and used it to his advantage.

Novels have the unique ability to go inside the head of a character and describe his inner thoughts. But books that don’t do that, putting their emphasis on plot or external descriptions instead of internal monologues, are still novels. Stage plays have the unique ability to engage the audience in a way that recorded media can’t. But a play that doesn’t have its characters jump off the stage and talk to audience members is still a play.

Videogames have the unique ability to let the audience take control over the narrative and the cinematography and explore the world at their own pace. But a game doesn’t have to completely relinquish control to the player to still be a game. The question a game developer needs to ask is: does interactivity add something substantial to the experience? If so, then congratulations, you’re making a videogame. If not, then you should make movies.

And some of the greatest moments in games have come about when the game took that control away from the player (BioShock), injected something the player couldn’t have predicted and wouldn’t have caused to happen on his own (Portal), gave the player only an illusion of control (Half-Life 2), or manipulated that sense of control so that the character’s motivations were at odds with the player’s (Shadow of the Colossus). In all of those cases, interactivity was crucial to the experience.

The problem is that we don’t have a perfect example yet. Each one of those games has at least one example of meaningless interactivity, where the story isn’t truly advancing, and the game is just throwing the player a bone to keep him occupied. But instead of focusing on where they fail, it’s more constructive to understand how they succeed: how each one tests the limits of interactivity and linearity and shows what works and doesn’t work. The definition should focus on the potential of interactivity, not the limitations of it.

The whole “games are not movies” argument is particularly silly when you look at what’s going on with every other medium in the context of that “synthesis” that Dyack was trying to talk about. More than ever before, we’re seeing the lines between “high art” and “low art” disappear, replaced with “good art” and “bad art.” We’re surrounded by remixes, mash-ups, adaptations, “re-imaginings,” re-interpretations, both literal and conceptual: one of the most popular television series is a pastiche of philosophy, sci-fi, soap opera, and action; and another popular movie is an adaptation of an attempt to test the literary potential of comic books. Insisting on a narrow definition of a medium is antiquated; we need to stop thinking about what games must do and get back to testing the limits of what they can do.